The gist: When you automate decisions that don’t matter, your willpower increases and you get incredibly good at making decisions that actually make a difference.
You’re sitting at work when the phone rings. You’ve been waiting for this call. You don’t know what the person on the other side will say, but you know there’s a big opportunity on the line—one that could change your life, skyrocket your career, improve your family.
But there’s also a risk involved. If you say yes, it could go wrong, even if the odds are slim.
Now, a question: What’s the best time of day to make this decision?
Funny question, right? Why would it matter? There’s a great opportunity. Just a slight risk. Won’t you make the right choice regardless when you’re asked? Most research says no.
In reality, you’re faced with all kinds of decisions daily:
- What time should I get out of bed?
- How much should I save for retirement?
- When should I feed the cat?
- Do my toes look funny?
- Should I get married?
- So on and so forth…
Individually, these questions aren’t hard to answer—even the deeper, more involved ones can be simple to decide. But, together, the sum is greater than the parts. If you ask yourself all these questions at the same time, you’ll melt down. It’ll be a terrible, draining day.
You’d experience, as the experts call it, decision fatigue—the inability to make a smart, rational choice after having to make others before it.1
But you’re a leader, aren’t you? You want to be, at least. You have lots of decisions to make each day, and how you decide them will have a big impact not just on your life, but the lives around you. People are counting on you to make good choices. Are you making the best ones possible on the decisions that matter?
The bad news is you probably aren’t—at least not all the time. But the good news is you can do something about it—and quickly—to fix the problem.
By the time you finish reading this, you’ll have already fundamentally improved your ability to make smart decisions about life’s biggest choices.
How Your Willpower Withers
How do you decide whether someone should spend their life free or locked up in prison?
You and I are unlikely to ever need to answer such a delicate question, but parole judges have to answer it many times every day. Someone made a mistake years ago, they’ve done some time, and now a judge decides if they’re fit to be free or if they should head back to the slammer.
The judge will look at many details.
- What was the crime?
- How long did they serve?
- How was their behavior?
- What do the psychological experts think?
All these factors are compiled, carefully combed over, and decided upon by someone sworn to uphold the laws of the land. Then, they make a tough decision.
That is, unless the judge had a busy morning and hasn’t had lunch yet. Then, you can pretty much count on them throwing out the process and sending people back to prison—the safe choice.
Even judges—the ultimate arbiters of justice—fall victim to decision fatigue.2 They lack the willpower to do the right thing under the wrong conditions, just like the rest of us.
Why? Because willpower is limited.3
Making good choices requires lots of willpower and you don’t have enough of it to make the right ones all day long.
Read next: Endless Willpower From A Spoonful Of Honey
For most of us, there’s a finite number of decisions we can “get right” each day. So, deciding which ones to make today is critical.
When you consider how bad we are at prioritizing big things in the future (Shouldn’t I save some money for retirement?) and how good we are at overdramatizing the trivial matters of the day (Does this tie go with my suit?), it’s a wonder we make any good decisions at all.
If you have a big vision for the future that requires lots of willpower and focus, how will you succeed when “Should I wear a red shirt?” gets the same priority in your brain as “How should I launch this new program?”
Surprise: you won’t. But you can if you’re willing to do a little work right now to make good choices easier.
If / Then Decision Making: 5 Strategies to Automate Success
You have a lot of decisions to make each day and not a lot of energy to make them with.
Our brains do us no favors helping to rank what’s important in the moment, so how do you make sure the important decisions get the bulk of your attention and you don’t drain your willpower to make good choices before they arrive?
The simplest answer is to make important decisions in the morning.
But it’s an imprecise tool. There are all kinds of unimportant decisions you have to make every morning…
- Should I eat breakfast?
- What color pants should I wear?
- Should I workout this morning?
…before you’re ready to make important ones.
And you don’t always know when you’ll face a critical decision. If a life-altering opportunity comes your way at 4pm, will you be ready to act on it? What if the entire SpongeBob SquarePants DVD collection goes on sale? Will you know what to do?
The other downside is it doesn’t solve the problem of too many decisions and too little willpower to make them.
You can make great decisions on the important things and still feel lousy when you struggle with the others.
So, what to do instead? Automate: if this, then that.
You can remove the need for willpower for all your unimportant or predictable decisions by building systems that look for clues and automatically make the best decision. If this is happening, then this is exactly what I’ll do. Poof! No more need to weigh your options.
But “automating your decisions” is a weird thing to think about and kind of hard to conceptualize. What does it look like? How does it work?
The easiest way is to look at some examples and try to emulate them—learn by doing. Here are five examples you can use right now to start automating your decisions every day.
1. Build a morning sequence.
When you wake up in the morning, do you know exactly what happens next? Do you always do the same thing, or do you wait to “see how you feel” before getting out of bed? You won’t realize it in the moment, but that hesitation to decide just subtracted from your willpower account. Was it worth it?
A few years ago, when I realized how much I struggled with mornings and how much that struggle lead to poor decisions all day, I built an automation workflow to decide how my days should start. I call it my “habit ladder.”
When I wake up, I know exactly what to do and when to do it. If it’s before 6am, then I go back to sleep or read a book. If it’s 6am or later and it’s a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I get up and go for a run.
Almost every decision that can be made before I start work in the morning was decided long ago. No willpower required. That’s a good thing because it takes time for my brain to become useful in the morning anyway.
All the willpower I saved can be used when something really important comes across my desk later in the day.
2. Create a daily to-do list… for the rest of your life.
Every productivity freak on the planet knows the importance of the daily to-do list and there are lots of rules for it:
- Do your important work first.
- Always underestimate how much you can do in a day.
- Make each task small and actionable
- Blah, blah, blah…
The rules are great—I subscribe to many of them—but do you notice how you often end up writing the same to-dos every day and having that same conversation with yourself about what to do first? That’s wasted willpower right there. That’s what’s going to make you eat Cheetos at the end of the day when you know you’re on a diet.
You have recurring tasks in your life, but why think about them every day? Instead, create an automation system so you can think about them once and then just do them. I use Trello4 to organize my week. It looks like this:
When it’s time to sit down and work, I don’t have to think about what work to do. I already did that. All I have to do is get started. As you can see, if it’s Wednesday, then I have seven things to do. Looks like I’m crossing one off now!5
Of course, there are things I need to do each day that aren’t (and can’t be) on this list, but that’s okay because I now have plenty of willpower to make good decisions on the important work that falls outside the system.
3. Simplify your wardrobe.
Except for a few additions for special occasions, the contents of my entire closet is:
- 5 button down shirts
- 5 v-neck t-shirts
- 4 pairs of pants.
- 1 belt
In other words, too much.
It’s normal to enjoy variety, but this is a perfect example of places in your life where small decisions spiral out of control and empty your willpower account first thing in the morning, leaving insufficient funds for the bigger, more important things that come later.
There was a time in my life when I stressed about what I would wear.
That was, coincidentally, a time when nothing of major importance happened either. If you think the 10 minutes you spend staring at yourself in the mirror and second guessing your underwear choice isn’t taking away from the bigger things, think again.
Truthfully, I still stress about what I’m going to wear. Instead of doing it every day, though, I now only do it when I go clothes shopping about once each year. I ask myself, “Does what I’m buying fit with everything else I already own?” If the answer is yes, then I buy it. If it’s no, then I don’t. Automation!
Today, I have a simple wardrobe that’s infinitely flexible. Everything goes with everything else, so I can grab whatever I want on a moment’s notice. I use the time I’d otherwise spend judging the pattern on my plaid shirt to think about how to make this article more fun for you to read. You’re welcome.
4. Simplify your food choices.
This is, admittedly, an area where I still struggle. Food is hard for me because I’m not good at thinking about it until I’m already hungry. That’s when I make bad choices that damage my health and eat up willpower for other important things.
But progress is being made. I’ve narrowed breakfast down to about four menu items and, for the most part, stick to them based on the day of the week. If it’s Monday, then I’m eating an apple with peanut butter. If it’s Thursday, then it’s eggs.
There’s much work left to be done on the rest of the day, but I know the system works because breakfast is an incredibly stress-free meal for me. In this effort, I can give most credit to my wife—a woman who values variety in her food choices but also carefully plans our menu out a week at a time. Using her system, my diet is much cleaner than it used to be.
5. Schedule your social interactions.
If it’s before 5pm, then I am working and I’m not out with friends. If it’s not Friday – Sunday, then I’m not in a meeting with anyone who isn’t on my immediate team.
As an introvert, these rules are mandatory for me.
I’m constantly fretting about not being good at relationships and simultaneously getting invitations to mid-day events and requests for meetings I feel like I should be at. If I get an email invite to a party, I can spend an hour or more thinking about whether or not to go and how to respond. But, with my automation rules, I know exactly what my answer will be.
This strikes the perfect balance for me. I can work through the day—my most productive hours—and still make plenty of time for my friends and other colleagues. In fact, it creates more time for them because I don’t waste an hour in the middle of the day worrying about how to respond to an invite. If it falls inside of “work hours” the answer is, “That sounds so fun, but I can’t make it. Can you do [insert time that does work] instead?”
I’m also careful not to squeeze too much interaction into any given week. I know if I go out two nights in a row, the next day is useless. If I overdo it one week, I clam up and don’t want to be social for several weeks to come.
These social automation rules keep the important work on track and keep my relationships strong by ensuring I never stress about them.
Do This in the Next 10 Minutes
You have too many decisions to make and not enough willpower to avoid decision fatigue. If you want to keep your focus on your most important work and be a leader to the people who depend on you, then you need a system to automate the small and predictable things that get in the way.
- Build a morning sequence.
- Create a daily to-do list… for the rest of your life.
- Simplify your wardrobe.
- Simplify your food choices.
- Schedule your social interactions.
These are a few parts of my life I automate each day, and they’ve made me a happier, more productive person who doesn’t stress about the small things. You can’t do all five of these things today. But you can do one, so pick the one that seems easiest and test it out for a week.
The next time a life-changing decision comes up, you’re going to make the right call. And it won’t matter what clothes you’re wearing when you make it.
- For more on decision fatigue, read this Wikipedia article.
- This article on willpower from APA was a reference for much of this piece.
- Trello occasionally adds perks to my account and sends me t-shirts for recommending their service. I’d recommend it even if they didn’t.
- At my house, the dog comes first every day because, otherwise, nothing else gets done and kitchen work comes before “real” work because I like staying married.